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Ask to Start Again

Use the fingering you’ve been taught but – if you forget this half way through the scale – try to continue playing with whatever fingering you can manage whilst doing your best to maintain the flow. If the scale (or arpeggio) totally ‘falls apart’, politely ask the examiner if you can start it again – never continue to play a scale which sounds ‘off key’ as this will offend the examiner’s ear and may cause him to doubt your musicality.

With the pieces, there is a tendency to play faster in the exam than you would normally – due, of course, to nerves. As long as the pupil is made aware of this risk, he should be able to control his starting speed. One piece of advice you can give is: always practise ‘counting in’ before starting the piece.

On the whole it’s better not to restart a piece – and certainly if you have gone past the half way mark. Occasionally, though, if the first line or so has been full of errors due to nerves then it may be worth asking the examiner if you can start again.

I often relay stories to my pupils about others who have received high marks in an exam, despite feeling that their rendition of a piece had been a ‘total disaster’.

The first was an adult female pupil of mine who misplaced a finger near the end of her B piece and couldn’t get the left hand back on track, so played the final five or six bars with just her right. The second was my younger son who ‘got in a muddle’ half way through his A piece so skipped ahead about five bars. Both of these candidates received surprisingly high marks for the pieces in question and both ended up with overall merits. I imagine the reason for this is that the examiner could ‘see through’ the mistakes and realised that – as both pupils were generally playing fluently, with effective dynamics, correct articulation and at an appropriate speed – the mistakes were ‘one-offs’ – possibly due to exam nerves – and could be ‘forgiven’. Presumably there would have been some effect on the marks – but nowhere near as much as both candidates (nor I!) expected.

Pupils are generally used to receiving some feedback from the teacher during a lesson (whether it’s a: “well done” or a “try that bit again”) so they need to realise that this rarely happens in an exam: an examiner might say: “thank you” at the end of a piece and will then spend a few moments writing on a comments sheet during which time there may be an odd silence. Again, I make sure I adopt a similar approach in the mocks.

Don’t Waste Time

The sight-reading test seems to produce the greatest sense of panic among exam candidates. The main advice here is not to waste precious seconds thinking: “I can’t do it”. Try to at least look through the whole piece (not necessarily playing it all), concentrate hard on all aspects you’ve worked on in lessons – and keep that concentration right through to the very last note or chord: you should never underestimate the importance of a secure ending.

Aural is perhaps the least daunting part of the exam – even for unmusical people like myself – because it (generally, if things proceed in the usual order) means the exam is nearly over. There may also be less of a sense of ‘letting yourself down’ by messing up something you’ve been practising for months as, on the whole, aural work is given the least attention during piano lessons. To some extent, no matter how much you prepare for aural, a part of it will always be down to luck on the day. Just ensure your pupil has practised the aural tests in order so he knows exactly what to expect and the type of answers required and remind him to always sound confident – even when he doesn’t feel it.

He should also realise he may be asked to stand behind the piano as the tests are carried out (so he can’t ‘cheat’ and look at the music or at which notes the examiner is playing): it may not have been practical to practise this way in his lessons.

Even when the exam finishes, the examiner is unlikely to say much. The only exchange I remember was as I headed for the door in tears (caused by extreme nerves) following my grade 8 (second attempt). I was in my 40s. The examiner looked at me sympathetically and said: “It doesn’t get any easier does it?!”

With some of my more nervous pupils, I sometimes confess to my pathetically emotional response to the exam experience. Even with those who appear confident, I warn that they may be surprised to find nerves affecting them on the day. (A piano exam is much worse than a written exam as shaking hands have a far stronger impact). I tell them that scales and pieces they’ve played perfectly at home and in lessons may suddenly seem to ‘go all wrong’. They must understand that a few mistakes due to nerves are not the end of the world and (hopefully), their overall ability and preparation will have shone through.

A Confident Smile

As to how to prevent these nerves in the first place – all I can say with total honesty is that you can’t! However, you can reduce the likelihood of an extreme nervous reaction by making sure you are as well prepared as you can possibly be. Enter the exam room with a confident smile and remember that – in many cases at least – you will have far more experience of playing your three pieces than the examiner has. It’s your chance to ‘show off’ to him.

It’s also important not to put too much pressure on yourself: don’t feel you have to play the pieces the best you’ve ever played them. It would be wonderful if this could actually happen – but unlikely … and even more unlikely if you become obsessive about it. It’s far better to just go in knowing you’ll try to do the best you can do in the given circumstances.

You can also limit your chances of having additional concerns (such as by ensuring that you’re wearing comfortable clothing – bearing in mind that stilettos aren’t a good idea for pedalling – that, if necessary, your hair is tied back away from your face, that your nails aren’t too long, that you’ve slept and eaten well and that you’ve arrived at the exam centre in plenty of time).

However, any advice I’ve been given about taking deep breaths or pressing my thumb and middle finger together firmly has had no effect whatsoever. Such things may appear to control nerves in the waiting room but the second I entered the exam room I was always a complete wreck! I can’t give any rational explanation for this reaction, although I imagine a lot of it’s to do with feeling ‘judged’.

The only bit of advice which caused any slight reduction in my nerves (and which I, therefore, pass on to others) was given to me by my husband who said: “Listen to yourself play and try to enjoy the music”. This did help me survive my grade 8 (on the second attempt) – but I think this was only because the pieces were reasonably long so I had a chance to relax and ‘get into’ them.

‘Pick Yourself Up’

But – as I tell each of my candidates: whatever negative effects nerves may have on your performance, the most important thing is that you’re able to forgive yourself, mentally ‘pick yourself up’ and carry on trying to the best of your ability right through to the end.

I sometimes use the analogy of competitive ice-skaters. We’ve all watched them slip over on the ice sometimes: it must be heart-breaking knowing that this will cost them a number of marks and maybe even a medal – yet somehow they are able to immediately pick themselves up and carry on where they left off; piano exam candidates need to do the same. I feel it is my responsibility to prepare pupils not only in a practical way but also psychologically for the ‘ordeal’ they are about to face.

As a teacher, I feel that the last lesson before a pupil’s exam is generally one of the most enjoyable. I try harder than usual to keep calm and cheerful and to be encouraging rather than critical – which generally produces a similarly positive response from my pupils.

At this point it is far too late to start going over and over mistakes or to go on about the importance of regular practice – I tend to let my pupil play through everything while I just sit and listen … and hopefully enjoy it. Whether or not he has worked as hard as he could or should have done, I always feel confident that I am sending my candidate into an exam having done my absolute best for him.

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